On Tuesday night, with snow forecast for the South East, SouthEastern railways introduced an emergency timetable for Wednesday. As it happens, South Eastern London didn't see that much snow, but with fewer and shorter trains serving the area on Wednesday morning, Hither Green station looked a bit like this:
All the trains were packed, and commuters were stranded. Many gave up entirely and went home. The situation was made worse as SouthEastern proceeded to cancel all metro services that night (lines closed around 8pm) and implement the same severely limited timetable today and, as it stands, tomorrow. You can read far more comprehensive accounts of the failure at Londonist here and 853 here.
Londonist asked SouthEastern what on earth was going on, and received the following:
"The decision to run a revised timetable was made based on the advice from Network Rail, who has responsibility for the track and they decide what service we will be able to provide.
They were out overnight with de-icing trains and we also ran ghost trains around the entire network, not just in London.
To ensure that we were able to provide a reliable service throughout the entire day and have the right staff and rolling stock in place for the evening peak, when the worst of the snow and ice hit London, we needed to run the revised timetable from the morning, as it would have been almost impossible to implement at the last minute for the afternoon. Our trains also come into London from across Kent where they will, of course, also be subject to the snow and icy conditions found there.
We told passengers at the earliest possible moment on Tuesday of the revised timetable through texts, emails, station notices, onboard announcements, station announcements and providing extra staff at stations, as well as advising the media of the plans.
The revised timetable remains in place for today (Thursday) and tomorrow (Friday) and we are asking passengers to check with National Rail Enquiries for services and to check when their last train home tonight will be."
So apparently it's all Network Rail's fault. I asked Network Rail and, for what it's worth, here's the response I've received from the press office:
"Network Rail and the train operators (in this case Southeastern) have agreed contingency plans in place to operate train services in extreme weather conditions.
In severe winter weather running a reduced service allows us to respond to any incidents quicker, with the intention of resolving them before they have a significant knock-on impact on other services. We do everything we can to reduce the risk of passengers being stranded on trains which can happen quickly when the network is operating at normal levels. Both Network Rail and the train operators also face the challenges of moving staff to where they need to be to do their job, particularly when the road conditions are as severe as they are at present.
We are working closely with the train operators to run as many trains as possible. We will continue to review the situation on a frequent basis with a view to resuming a normal service as soon as possible."
I've asked the company – whose press office has, I should add, beem prompt and helpful – why Network Rail and SouthEastern have implemented such drastic cuts while other services in far more snowy areas are carrying on regardless, and will update when I get a reply – hopefully tomorrow.
Another update: a reply from National Rail's press office. I'd asked why SouthEastern services were so severely restricted despite minimal snowfall in the SouthEastern metro line area:
"A one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't work in these circumstances. The contingency plans in place take into account a wide range of factors specific to each route including the characteristics of the railway infrastructure itself and the type of trains which run on it.
We can assure your readers that Network Rail and Southeastern are working hard to run as many trains as possible and the plans in place aim to achieve this. We will continue to review the effectiveness of the plans and if we identify a way to improve them further, we will do so.
In addition to the volume of snow on some parts of the network, we have also experienced some problems as a result of the prolonged freezing temperatures which have been experienced in Kent. The third rail electrification system used to the south of the capital can be susceptible to this sort of weather, especially when combined with rain or melting snow. Special trains which spray hot de-icer fluid on the tracks/third rail and empty trains, known as 'ghost trains', are run across the network to try and prevent ice forming, however, if ice does form it can interfere with the power systems on the trains and cause significant disruption.
We apologise for any disruption to passenger's journeys but we have a duty of care to passengers and our staff and it would be irresponsible to ignore the severity of the forecast and how the icy conditions can result in trains being stranded. We'll continue to do what we can to run the best possible rail service in the circumstances – it is in nobody's interest to do anything other than this."